Chitter, chatter… why communication in Early Years is vital

Posted on 12th Apr 2019 in School News, Prep Schools Guide, Early Years

Danielle Armstrong, Kindergarten Teacher at Bridgewater School in Greater Manchester, argues the case for ‘real’ conversation...

As an Early Years Practitioner, it is worrying to read of and see a steady decline in children’s ability and desire to communicate at an age appropriate level. This trend appears to coincide with an increase in the use of tablets and smartphones. According to recent findings by the Department of Culture, one in four children under the age of two now have their own tablet (this figure rises to more than a third for three to five year olds). I only have to enter a restaurant to see children being offered tablets or smartphones to watch cartoons and play games on whilst the adults in the family engage in conversation. This then excludes the child from interacting and means they are missing out on vital communication and social skills.

As a direct result of this decrease in communication with our young children, more and more are requiring additional support, for example through ‘Speech and Language Therapy’. The extra demand is putting this vital service under real pressure, something which has been recognised by local authorities around the country. In order to alleviate some of this strain, schools are being given training in various initiatives, enabling staff to recognise those specific areas of communication requiring support in individual children.

Aside from excessive screen time impacting upon children’s communication, another factor is the overuse of dummies or soothers. I am seeing an ever growing number of children unable to form words correctly or to control their tongues successfully due to the overuse of a dummy. Dummies not only have a negative effect on a child’s teeth, but can also affect their ability to make themselves understood. This in turn can lead to a child developing low confidence and self-esteem. As a rule, we encourage parents to stop the use of a dummy by the time their child turns three with some opting to give theirs away to the ‘Dummy Fairy’. If parents insist on the use of a dummy, they should only be used at bedtime thus having the minimal impact upon speech as possible.

I always emphasise the importance of eye contact when communicating with a child. Of course, if a child is presenting with traits consistent with Autism Spectrum Disorder/Autism Spectrum Condition (ASD/ASC), this can prove difficult. Eye contact ensures that a child is focused on what is being said and also allows an adult to observe how words are being formed, therefore being able to provide support in the correct formation and pronunciation of words as well as using the correct tense. Young children often confuse tenses, using phrases such as ‘I goed’, rather than, ‘I went’.

As a teacher of nursery aged children, I am passionate about children speaking correctly and using the correct language. We discourage the children in our setting from using immature terms such as, ‘doggy’, ‘choo-choo train’ and ‘horsey’, etc. We also actively discourage the children from pronouncing ‘th’ as ‘f’ or ‘v’, and other commonly mispronounced sounds. All of these reinforcements of correct speech go on to help children when they begin to use their phonic knowledge to complete their independent writing and spelling, especially in Reception Class and beyond. If a child says ‘fank you’ they will spell it with an ‘f’ instead of a ‘th’. The sooner that young children get out of the bad habit of forming words incorrectly, the easier it is for them to fully grasp correct speech.

As we know, Communication and Language is one of the Prime Areas within EYFS, along with Personal, Social and Emotional Development and Physical Development. This shows how vital and integral communication is for their overall development. They cannot begin to achieve well in the four Specific Areas (Mathematics, Understanding the World, Literacy and Expressive Arts and Design), if they have not met the requirements for their age within the aforementioned Prime Areas. How can we expect children to form good, strong relationships with their peers if they struggle to make themselves understood verbally? Equally, how can a young child begin to word build if they cannot form the sounds correctly? Good communication and language skills really are the basis for all of our learning. Even as adults, we use skills gained at a young age on a day to day basis.

Although there is a big emphasis on this within schools, parents should still be encouraged to talk to their children more at home, for example explaining days out to them; where they are going, how they will get there, etc. These simple things can make a big difference to a young child’s general knowledge and the benefits will be immeasurable. The more skills children acquire before entering school, at age 3 or 4 years, the more they can expect to gain from the learning opportunities within their setting.

During inspections, communication between our children is often commented on and praised with observations being made on the way that we, as staff, speak to the children and also how confidently the children communicate with staff and peers. We encourage children to ‘use their voices’ rather than shaking or nodding their heads, pointing or shrugging their shoulders. We talk about and implement the importance of turn-taking in conversation; the children know to raise their hand in order to join in with a discussion, showing some understanding that we should not interrupt or talk over someone. We are aware that some children can be shy and reluctant to speak in a large group and these children are given extra support through the use of small groups and one-to-one work. This allows their confidence to grow.

I am not suggesting that technology is all negative; tablets and televisions have their places and are extremely valuable in their own right, especially with the huge emphasis on technology and programming both in school and in the workplace. However, they should be used in moderation and not as a substitute or replacement for real conversations. Providing children with early conversation skills helps to ensure that they can be successful in both their careers and their personal and social lives no matter what route they choose in life.

As the saying goes…‘It is good to talk!’

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2019. You can view this guidebook here: